Sports fanatics support their favorite teams by cheering them on loudly.
Tennis is different. There’s a sense of decorum. It’s one of the few sports where officials frequently remind fans to be quiet during points.
But the Big 12 Conference is trying to change that. In an effort to fill seats, Big 12 schools are giving spectators an opportunity to be fanatical.
Michael Leonard, Elon University men’s tennis head coach, said he wants fans to become more vocally involved during matches.
“We need tennis to be more exciting,” Leonard said.
In mid-April, the Wall Street Journal reported the first installment of a new rule being implemented by conferences including the Big 12, which encourages fans to heckle, scream and cheer during rallies even when players are serving.
“People think tennis is more of a gentleman’s game and there’s no real atmosphere,” said redshirt freshman Neal Port. “But if this rule can help change how the sport is viewed, I think it’ll be a positive thing.”
Leonard said the extra energy from the crowd could create the positive environment the NCAA wants in college tennis.
According to Leonard, there must be rules and systems in place if fans get out of hand.
While many large conferences have umpires at all or most courts, mid-major schools often make due with only one or two umpires.
At small schools, the players themselves officiate their matches. Players have to call their own points and must signal to their opponent if a ball has gone out.
Fans have the potential to distract players or make fake calls on a ball being in or out, which could create a great deal of confusion sorting out who said what and what the correct calls should be.
Even if the NCAA and the Big 12 create a fan-friendly environment for college tennis, Leonard said the length of matches will always be another deterrent.
Increased fan involvement is not the only new idea made by the NCAA to increase excitement for the sport.
Last year, some college tennis teams experimented briefly with a new scoring system in an effort to shorten matches and make them more pleasing to spectators.
Doubles matches were shortened to six-game pro sets. Singles matches had no advantage scoring — a player needed to only win one point if a game was level at deuce.
Leonard worries that shortening matches would alter the sport too much and thinks it shouldn’t be the main method used to attract fans.
“The shortened format is probably not as important as the energy they’re trying to create through the fans,” he said.
These rule changes are intended to energize attitudes about the sport.
Shortened match time and increased fan involvement rules have yet to be implemented by the Colonial Athletic Association and have yet to directly impact Elon’s tennis program.
Poor weather and a 10-13 record lowered Elon fan attendance at the Jimmy Powell Tennis Center. But Port said the atmosphere and excitement around the program has been improving.
“Towards the end of the year, we started filling up all of the bleachers,” he said. “It definitely made matches a lot more fun.”